Look Who's Been Suspiciously Quiet About the Palestinian Jailbreak

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Amir Ohana in the Knesset, in June
Amir Ohana in the Knesset, in JuneCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

If you haven’t heard anything from one of our biggest blabbermouths, Lawmaker Amir Ohana (Likud), regarding last week’s jailbreak, it’s for good reason. He’ll soon be testifying before a state commission of inquiry about his role in April’s lethal stampede at Mount Meron, and his prating about “responsibility instead of blame” will once again receive a hostile hearing.

It’s only natural for Ohana, who was interviewed at length by the Mako website on September 9, to keep quiet about the Israel Prison Service’s huge snafu. Nobody would be surprised if the jailbreak plan was hatched during his term as public security minister – yet another reason not to draw attention to himself.

Ohana accepted the job of public security minister with one main goal – to help then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escape justice. None of his ministry’s other areas of responsibility interested him much, unless they offered him an opportunity for cheap populism.

This is also the root of his reckless, criminal decision not to vaccinate prisoners against the coronavirus. It was reckless because it placed inmates, corrections employees and the public as a whole at risk. It was criminal because it was an abuse of Israel’s weakest population in order to make populist hay.

As public security minister, Ohana was in charge of the Israel Prison Service. Yet he did nothing to implement the High Court of Justice’s 2017 ruling requiring the service to provide at least 4.5 square meters of living space for each incarcerated person. Prisoners in Israel had to make do with 3 square meters – even though the prison service’s own regulations stipulate a minimum of 6 square meters per person. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has pointed out that the average in Western countries is 8.8 square meters per person.

Thus, in reality, while serving as public security minister, Ohana presided over violations of the court’s ruling on one of his ministry’s areas of responsibility on a daily basis. Does anybody seem surprised? For Ohana, cruelty was always the point.

Ohana chose to continue this abuse of the prisoners – as well as the even more serious abuse of Palestinian security prisoners, many of whom are being held in administrative detention without trial – because it’s popular with the public, and especially that segment of the public nearest to his heart, the neoliberals in the Finance Ministry and other places. A few years ago, the High Court blocked an attempt to privatize the prisons, but the neoliberals don’t give up easily.

Over the past few days, we’ve been told that most of the Prison Service’s budget goes for salaries, while only a minuscule proportion is earmarked for development. That is true, but both those facts are irrelevant.

Obviously, it would be better for the service to have additional technological tools for keeping track of prisoners. But what the neoliberals are demanding is that salaries be cut to procure those technological tools. In other words, they want to transfer money from the prison guards to high-tech workers.

The job of a corrections officer is among the hardest and most burnout-prone there is. We burden prison guards with one of the most thankless jobs possible, and now we also want to slash their salaries. Evidently, someone has forgotten that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Ohana did not try to increase the agency’s budget – which is necessary in order to expand the prisons and to provide appropriate living conditions to the people who are incarcerated in them, including for security offenses – or to acquire the necessary technological tools. Instead, he chose to ride the wave of popularity and to abuse the prisoners.

Prisons are not penal colonies. The people who are held in them are human beings in every respect, with full human rights in every respect. They deserve a minister who is not a cruel clown – and so do we, because a society is judged in part by how it treats its prisoners.

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